Foreign Policy — Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:42 pm on 26th February 2009.

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Photo of Baroness Gibson of Market Rasen Baroness Gibson of Market Rasen Labour 1:42 pm, 26th February 2009

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, for this debate. I wish to take this opportunity to raise the profile of Latin America, where there are plenty of challenges relating to foreign policy. As chair of the All-Party Parliamentary British-Latin American Group, I will take this opportunity to ensure that such an important part of the world is not forgotten. Unfortunately, the ambassadors to the UK from the Latin American countries feel that their countries have been placed somewhat on the back-burner in recent years. Inevitably, with fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, the events in Gaza and the Middle East more generally, Latin America is not exactly on the front pages of our newspapers or on our television screens. Moreover, it does not help us with our Latin American friends when we close our embassies in their countries, thus signalling as far as they are concerned the lessening of their importance, to say nothing of the added workload for those of our ambassadors who are out in the field, flying the flag on our behalf. In my view, closing embassies has been a retrograde step, which, as a country, we may well yet come to deeply regret.

Latin America, as I am sure my noble friend knows well, could provide business and investment opportunities for UK companies which may be curtailed in other parts of the world. Certainly Brazil stands out as a country wide open with opportunities for UK businesses, as the Brazilian ambassador always emphasises. Perhaps my noble friend can give his assessment of how the UK is investing in Latin America, especially in Brazil, and what the Government are doing to encourage such investment. I emphasise UK investment because at the last annual general meeting of the all-party group we had in attendance 18 ambassadors from Latin American countries both large and small. Investment was high on all their agendas, together with at that time questions surrounding changes in our migration rules and the restrictions that these were placing on citizens from Latin American countries. I understand that aspects of the latter are still under discussion with the Government. The former remains vital to both the UK and our friends in Latin America.

I turn now to a specific Latin American country. I have just returned from Bolivia, where I was part of a delegation to La Paz and Santa Cruz organised by the Inter-Parliamentary Union. This organisation, headed so ably by Kenneth Courtenay, is invaluable in furthering relationships between the UK and different countries across the world. Since taking over as chair of the all-party group, I have been in the fortunate position of seeing this work at close quarters and admiring the expertise and dedication of Ken and his colleagues. Our visit to Bolivia was no exception. We met the Bolivian vice-president, the presidents of both the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate, the Foreign Minister, the president of the new human rights commission and the ombudsman. We also met with NGOs and representatives of indigenous people from different parts of the country.

The politicians took an early opportunity to raise an important issue for them and, in turn, I shall raise it today. They expressed their deep concern about the UK Government's recent decision to require Bolivian citizens wishing to visit the UK to have a visa to enter this country. The Bolivian Government emphasised that Bolivians travelling here are neither delinquents nor criminals, but in Bolivian eyes they are being treated as such. The Bolivian Government want to know why Bolivia and Venezuela have been singled out over visas when other Latin American countries have not had such a requirement placed on them. Perhaps my noble friend could explain to the House the Government's thinking behind the visa decision.

It was an interesting and exciting time to be visiting Bolivia, which is the poorest and least developed of all the Latin American countries. Some 64 per cent of the population live below the poverty line; this figure rises to 80 per cent in the rural areas. President Evo Morales was first elected to power in January 2006. His manifesto included enhancing the social welfare of the majority of Bolivians, especially children and the elderly; enhancing the political rights of those Bolivians who are of indigenous descent and who have long been excluded from decision-making processes; and entering into new relationships with the main foreign companies and increasing their tax contributions, particularly from gas resources. As the indigenous people are in the majority in Bolivia, the measures affecting them are particularly popular.

President Morales himself is the first indigenous Bolivian president, having been elected to a five-year term of office. In August 2008, he won a recall referendum with 67 per cent of the vote and, on 25 January this year, he called a further referendum on the text of a new constitution. Participation in this was over 90 per cent and international observers confirmed that it was conducted freely and fairly. The "yes" option won by over 61 per cent of the valid votes counted. The number of politicians now in favour of the constitution stands at 73 per cent because the opposition parties have split and 12 per cent of those opposition politicians have pledged to support the Government in their aims for constitutional change. Of course the implementation of the constitution will not be plain sailing and opposition will undoubtedly continue, especially from Podemos, the main opposition party. However, once the genie is out of the lamp, things can never be quite the same again. The hopes and aspirations of those who never before felt that they counted have been raised beyond their wildest dreams. As the vice-president put it:

"There has been a recognition by the indigenous people that they can now be anything they want to be".

The Morales Government will have to move as swiftly as they are able to enact their promises because of these high expectations.

A key issue for the UK is the position of BG Bolivia and other oil and gas producers in Bolivia and what the Morales Government describe as,

"entering into new relationships with the main foreign companies"— in other words, renegotiating existing contracts. Last Wednesday, we visited the gas plant of BG Bolivia, La Vertiente, in the Tarija district. The plant has been nationalised by the Government, which means that the Bolivian state now owns 51 per cent of it. The Bolivian Government have established a new national company whose duty is to oversee gas extraction. However, we were told that there are not enough people employed to carry out this task properly, which hampers negotiations and creates frustrations. A great deal of suspicion in Bolivia about foreigners involved in the extraction industries has built up over the years. Against this background, some members of the delegation, including me, feared the worst when it came to discussing the renegotiation of the contract between the Bolivian Government and BG Bolivia. However, in our briefing we were told that in the last four months there has been "a lot of progress" and that they are,

"almost at a stage of final agreement".

President Morales has met personally with BG Bolivia representatives on a number of occasions and asked for a further meeting in the near future. It is to be hoped that this is a positive position from which a new and positive relationship can develop. Perhaps the Minister can comment on this.

In the time available, it has been possible to give only a flavour of Bolivia in its new phase, but I know that your Lordships will wish for the good bilateral relationships that we have with Bolivia and all Latin American countries to continue.